Poetics: Chapter 26 - Full Text

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Chapter 26

      Epic and Tragedy: comparative value The question may be raised whether the epic or the tragedy is the higher form of imitation. It may be argued that, if the less vulgar is the higher, and the less vulgar is always that which addresses the better public, an art addressing any and everyone is of a very vulgar order. It is a belief that their (of the performers) public cannot see the meaning, unless they (the performers) add something of themselves, and this accounts for perpetual movements of the performers; a bad flute-player, for instance, rolling about, if quoit throwing to be presented and pulling at the conductor, if Scylla" is the subject of the piece. Tragedy, then, is said to be a vulgar art of this kind - to be, in fact just what the later actors were in the eyes of their predecessors for Mynniscus used to call Callippides the ape', because he thought he so overacted his parts; and a similar view was taken of Pindarus also. All Tragedy, then, stands to the Epic in the same relation as the newer to the older school of actors. One (Epic), accordingly, is said to address a cultivated audience, which does not need the accompaniment of gesture; the other (Tragedy), is an uncultivated one. If therefore, Tragedy is a vulgar art, it must clearly be lower than the Epic.

      The answer to this is two-fold. In the first place, one may urge (1) that the censure does not touch the art of the dramatic poet, but only that of his interpreter; for it is quite possible to overdo the gesturing even in an epic recital, as did Sosistratus', and in a singing contest, as did Mnasitheus of Opus. (2) That one should not condemn all movement, unless one means to condemn even dance, but only that of bad performers - which is the point of the criticism passed on Callippides and in the present day on others, that their women are not like gentlewomen. (3) That Tragedy may produce its effect even without movement or action in just the same way as Epic poetry; for from the mere reading of a play its quality may be seen. So that, if it is superior in all other respects, this element of inferiority is not inherent in it.

      In the second place, one must remember (1) That Tragedy has everything that the Epic has (the epic meter being admissible), together with a not inconsiderable addition in the shape of the Music (a very real factor in the pleasure of the drama) and the Spectacle. (2) That it has vividness of impression in reading as well as in representation. (8) That the tragic imitation requires less space for the attainment of its end; which is a great advantage, since the more concentrated effect is pleasurable than one with a large admixture of time to dilute it consider the Oedipus of Sophocles, for instance, and the effect of expanding it into the number of lines of Iliad. (4) That there is less unity in the imitation of the epic poet, as is proved by the fact that any one work of theirs supplies matter for several tragedies; the result being that, if they take what is really a single story, it seems curt when briefly told, and thin and waterish when on the scale of length usual to their verse. In saying that there is less unity in an epic, I mean an epic is made up of a plurality of actions, in the same way as the Iliad and Odyssey have many such parts, each one of them in itself of some magnitude; yet the structure of the two Homeric poems is as perfect as can be, and the action in them is as nearly as possible one action. If, then, Tragedy is superior in these respects, and also besides these, in its poetic effect (since the two forms of poetry should give us, not any Or every pleasure, but the very special kind we have mentioned), it is clear that, as attaining the poetic effect better than the Epic, it will be the higher form of art.

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